Who the first men were to mine this region is not known for certain, but legend has it that among the earliest were members of Stevenson’s Regiment who chanced upon the diggings in 1848. They found the placers exceedingly rich, averaging $100 a day per man, with some spots yielding up to $500. The claims in Soldiers Gulch were paying so well that no one took the time off from mining to build any kind of permanent shelter. So when the first snows began to fly, most of the men packed up their gear and headed for friendlier climes.
A few of the soldiers; however, decided to dig in for the winter, undoubtedly hoping to continue working the rich placers and build up their stakes. But the winter proved cruel, and without substantial shelter from the storm or adequate supplies, the soldiers perished. Their bodies weren’t discovered until several years afterward, at which time they were buried on Graveyard Hill.
With the melting of the snows and the opening of the trails, it wasn’t long before the diggings at Soldiers Gulch were once again jumping. An immigrant named Jacob Cook came upon the valley in 1849, which he described as “a natural beauty spot, covered with leafy white oaks of immense size, and carpeted with grass, three to five feet high, having the appearance of an old English park.” While the miners may not have noticed the natural beauty of the spot, blinded by their search for gold, they did notice the strange, burnt-looking rock formations and the fact that the camp seemed to be located in the crater of a huge volcano. Someone dubbed the place Volcano and the name stuck.
The surface gravels paid handsomely, and to the miners’ surprise, the claims seemed to get richer the deeper they went. Men picked out large nuggets with only their fingers as tools; the diggings were easy. Until they hit a layer of disquieting yellow clay. Sure, there was gold in the clay, but it was almost impossible to get out. Discouraged, several claims were abandoned which later turned out to be worth fortunes when methods of separating the gold from the clay were discovered. Boiling was found to disintegrate the clay, so boilers were built to steam out the gold. Another method was to let the clay dry in the sun, after which it was an easy matter to pound it to dust and extract the gold. One miner is reported to have taken out $8,000 in only a few days, another took out twenty-eight pounds from a single pocket. With returns like these, it’s easy to see how the region produced the $90 million credited to this area.
One of the first stores in town was operated by Cook & Co., who proved adept at acquiring gold without the hard work normally associated with that endeavor. They acquired a barrel each of syrup, vinegar, and whisky from Sacramento, selling the first two at $5 a gallon. The whiskey brought as much as $60 a gallon, when dispensed at fifty cents a drink. The miners had little choice but to pay the asking price, as there were no other stores nearby.
Volcano was an election precinct as early as 1849 and within two years a post office had been established. The town really came into its own in 1852; however, when the Volcano cutoff off the Carson Route was completed. John Doble relates in his diary, “The Emigration is coming in rapidly at the rates of 10 to 20 waggons a day & every two or 3 waggons a family sometimes two or three...Many of them are stopping here & going to Mining so our town is now quite lively.” Before the year was out, some three hundred clapboard and pine houses were scattered about the hillsides, and the population was nearing two thousand. The following year Doble reports, “...There is now in this Town Eleven stores 1 Restaurant 3 Bakeries 6 Hotels 3 private Boarding Houses & 3 Bars & Gambling Houses one of the Bars is in an Apothecaries shop which leaves only two Gambling Houses.”
The town was becoming quite civilized; as early as 1850, Robert Beth attempted to bring about a public library but his efforts didn’t amount to much. In the autumn of 1854; however, the “Miners’ Library Association” was formed. Admission fees were $1 and monthly dues 25 cents. This entitled members to participate in weekly meetings, where social, political, and scientific questions were heartily debated. When $100 had been collected, a list of books were ordered and a significant library formed. After three or four months, the weekly meetings began to lose their interest and a rumor began circulating that the society was finished. This prompted a wild grab for the books and the Library Association dissolved a day or two later. The year 1854 also saw the organization of a Masonic lodge in Volcano, which held their first five meetings in a cave.
The first private astronomical telescope observatory in the state was built here by geologist George Madeira. On the evening of June 30 of 1861, Madeira discovered the comet "1861 II," only a few hours after its discovery in Europe.
When the easily mined placers of Soldiers Gulch began to give out, hydraulic mining came into favor, enabling the town to continue to thrive and prosper. Ironically, the destructive forces of this form of mining, which tore the soil away from the bedrock and sent the paydirt running through the sluices, almost wiped out the town. Many of the buildings were undermined; dirt, sludge and debris washed into homes and gardens, and the town was in danger of being swept away in the miner’s hydrophilic quest for gold. A good illustration of the amount of land washed away is the St. George Hotel. Seemingly located on the outskirts of town today, old photos show it originally being near the center of the community.
By 1865, most of the gold was gone, and so were most of the people. Volcano had suffered its share of fires over the years, and in 1868 the problem seemed epidemic. Property values had been dropping steadily since the end of the Civil War, but many of the businesses were heavily insured from earlier, more prosperous times. Numerous fires broke out that year, prompting a rumor that the property owners may have had something to do with them. The buildings which burned were not rebuilt, the owners simply left and the town slowly settled down to a more prosaic way of life that it still experiences today.
Being separated from Hwy 49 and Sutter Creek by a twelve-mile stretch of narrow, twisting road - about a thirty minute drive - Volcano is not cluttered with motels, gas stations, signs and convenience-marts. It remains relatively untouched, its Gold Rush buildings, sites and relics give the place a feeling of history, looking much today as when they were first built and occupied by the citizens of this rich mining camp, back in the days of gold.
The St. George Hotel is Volcano’s largest structure. Dating back to 1863, this three-story brick hostlery is the fourth hotel to stand on this site, the previous three being destroyed by fire. The Eureka House was the first hotel on the site, built sometime prior to March of 1853, as John Doble recorded attending a ball there in his diary. It burned to the ground on September 4 of 1853. Doble reports seeing some of the boarders “washing” the ashes the following day in an effort to recover lost nuggets. Rachel and John Myers rebuilt their Eureka House, opening with a grand ball on December 23 of 1853. They had rebuilt with wood. Henrietta George, wife of Benjamin F., purchased the hotel for $2,000 on June 1 of 1854, at which time it became known as the “Empire House.” A fire on October 29 of 1859, the work of an incendiary, broke out in an uninhabited building on Consolation Street. The Empire was among the many buildings destroyed by the blaze. The Georges suffered a loss estimated at $6,000. Undaunted, they rebuilt. Of wood. The new hotel was renamed the St. George and it lasted until October of 1862, when it and all the other buildings on the block went up in flames, started by a fire in the hotel itself. The last time the hotel was rebuilt, it was constructed of brick, which probably saved it from destruction in 1868 when one of that year’s many fires surrounded the building. Today the three-story brick building with the wooden balconies is the first thing you’ll see upon entering town.
The Kelly and Symonds Store is one of four limestone stores built in 1855. The firm of Kelley and Symonds contracted with the Frye brothers to build their store, which was completed in October of 1855. The masons and workmen quarried limestone blocks from the Masonic Cave hill, then cut and fitted them to form the fancy front of the new store. The side and rear walls were less showy, being made form rubble-sized stones, as found or crushed to the proper size. The merchandise carried included fancy dry goods, boots, shoes, clothing and provisions. They called their place the "San Francisco Store," and in an attempt ot appeal to the town's religious community, they advertised: "In compliance with the high moral tone of this community, and our own conviction of duty, our store will be closed on Sundays." The firm went out of business within a year. Today all that remains of the old place is the limestone facade with its three empty doorways always open now, all slowly being taken back by nature..
The Clute Building was also built in 1855 by the brothers Frye. John, George, and Reuben Frye arrived in Volcano during the early 1850’s, and by 1855 had done quite well for themselves. Their income came from mining, and selling water from their ditch to the miners working the placers in Soldiers Gulch. They also speculated in real estate, owning several pieces of property on Main Street, upon which they erected buildings to meet the growing demand for stores. Standing on the west side of Main Street, with Soldiers Gulch behind, this building was constructed on two lots, each twenty feet wide by sixty feet deep. From the outside, the building appeared to be a single store; actually it was two, divided down the middle by a common wall. When the building was finished, the brothers sold the north lot and north half of the building on it to E. M. Strange in November of 1855. Four days later, they sold the south lot and south half of the building to John LaRoy and James A. Robbins. LaRoy and Robbins sold out the following year to Charles Crocker (later one of the Big Four), who sold it to Franklin W. Clute in August of that same year. Franklin ran a general merchandise store here, later selling out to his brother Peter. All in all, the Clutes operated from this site for nearly four decades, from 1856 to 1905, with the two buildings trading hands several times between different parties, at one time being repurchased by the Frye brothers. The structure eventually came into the possession of the Volcano Pioneers community theatre group who reinforced and converted the building into their new theatre.
Soldiers Memorial Park is located in Soldiers Gulch, where some of the earliest mining took place. Take a walk through the park and examine the twisted, molten rock formations, touch the burnt-looking rocks of volcanic appearance, notice the surrounding mountain walls which encircle the town. It's no wonder the miners thought there were in the crater of an extinct volcano.
The General Store dates back to 1854 and claims to have operated continuously since that time. It's one of the more unique buildings in town, actually two stores which have been combined into one. Apparently built at different times, one half of th estore is made of brick while the other half is of stone.
The Jug & Rose Cafe was built from the ruins of a stone building originally located in Upper Rancheria, one of the Mother Lode’s many gold camps that have vanished without a trace.
The Bavarian Brewery, a single-story stone building, was constructed in 1856. It was the last of three breweries which operated in Volcano. It is currently part of a private residence.
The Sing Kee Store, built from native stone and complete with the heavy iron shutters, dates from around 1854, making it one of the town's oldest buildings. George Johnson was probably the building's first owner. He operated a news and literary depot, selling books, magazines, assorted newspapers and stationery. He later added such items as school books, cigars, and tobacco. The building came into the possession of David S. Boydston in the early 1860s, at which tiem a new line of drugs were added, earning the building the title of 'drug store.' Sometime during the late 1870s, Sing Kee purchased the property, by whose name it is still known as today.
The I.O.O.F. & Masonic Hall is located right behind the Sing Kee building. Built in 1856 by Samuel Hayes and James Adams for their store, the two orders acquired the two-story building and shared it for their meetings. The Volcano Weekly Ledger moved here from their original building shortly before relocating to Jackson when it became apparent that Volcano’s boom was drawing to a close.
The tiny Volcano Jail looks to be under the gun here, but this monitor is no longer loaded. Although the jail seems hardly able to withstand a strong gust of wind, let alone hold dangerous criminals, it proved its worth many times. Built in 1872, the secret to its success are the metal plates sandwiched in between the wooden planks which form the walls. The jail is virtually escape proof, and the story goes that its first prisoners were the men who constructed it.
Old Abe is the oldest nineteenth century six-pound bronze cannon in the United States. Forged in 1837 by the Cyrus Alger Foundry of Boston, this six-pounder is shrouded in mystery. Where was it between the years of 1837 and 1863, and how did it end up in San Francisco to be bought by the Volcano Blues' Captain Adams? No one knows for sure. What we do know is that the Volcano Blues acquired the cannon, secretly brought it to town and made it ready to protect Volcano gold. The Blues feared that southern sympathizers were plotting to seize the gold for the Confederacy, to aid them in the war. The mere sight of the cannon supposedly broke the ranks of the marching secessionists, saving the day and the gold. It was later discovered that the cannoneer had over-loaded the cannon with black powder. Had it been fired it would have blown them all to smithereens.
The Miners Bell was donated to the town by the Reverend Thomas Starr King in 1861, apparently in appreciation to the town's enthusiastic response for a speech he had made.
The Union Hotel dates to 1880 when it was rebuilt after a fire. The two-story, wood-frame balconied building originally housed a billiard parlor, saloon, and boarding house.
The Volcano Schoolhouse served as the town school until 1956. Dating back to the 1870’s, the old structure has been remodeled into a private residence. The bell tower was not part of the original structure, but was added at a later date.
The Methodist-Episcopal Church stands atop the low, rocky hills at the edge of town. The dedication ceremony took place on Sunday, July 11 of 1852, with Reverend Fish and presiding elder Owen attending. After the ceremony, the final $200 needed to clear the church of debt was raised by passing the plate. In the July 22 issue of the Methodist-Episcopal weekly, The Christian Advocate, Reverend William J. Morrows writes: “The people of Volcano have shown their respect for Christianity and morality in the erection of a neat little church which now stands on the hill close by town. It is 24 by 30 feet square, well seated and will soon have a good pulpit.” The church was built of pine poles and clapboards and finished on the inside with plank seats.
The Masonic Caves are an eerie, phantasmagorial place once used for secret meetings by pre-charter Masons. The caves are located on different levels and vary in size and shape. Several openings lead into the caves which honeycomb the limestone hill, the one used by the Masons is a little bit larger than the others and is located higher on the hill. The caves were abandoned after five meetings when the Masons moved into their new meeting hall which they shared with the Odd Fellows, which was most likely a bit warmer and dryer.